Aryanil Mukherjee’s “Hand Movements of a Puppeteer” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #9 of Cha)
Mukherjee’s poem “Hand Movements of a Puppeteer” is a montage of disjoint images, flashes of seemingly disparate moments: coldness between birds and rubber-tree leaves (L1-L6), dahlias grown for judged competition (L8-L9), a boy in an airplane playing with the window shutter (L10-L11), a tree falling in the forest (L14-L15), and finally — the namesake of the poem — puppeteer on festival grounds (L20-L22). Despite the apparent randomness of the images, they are linked by cohesive themes.
Flowers and trees. In the second stanza, it is ‘the dahlias without doubt’ (L9), and in the third stanza merely ‘strange flowers’ (L12). The first stanza mentions ‘rubber-tree leaves’ (L3) rubbing off each other, and the fourth stanza ponders whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound. Together the descriptions of flowers and trees paint a serene picture of plantlife that ties into the ‘acoustic undulations’ (L18) of the last stanza, as tree leaves can be imaged to undulate in a wave-like motion. A notion of life and death is present in this imagery as well. The dahlias bred for beauty get their moment of fame in a competition where blue ribbons are awarded, the rubber-tree leaves are ‘perspiring in persistence’ (L4) and touching each other as if every moment could be their last, and finally, the trees in a conservation get uprooted silently, without anyone being around to listen to them. This is quite similar to the human experience: our youthful illusion of being at the spotlight, our persistent desire to connect with other people, and finally the somewhat disappointing fact of dying alone.
The colour blue. If the poem was a painting, it would be blueish all around. The very first line describes the sky, and the first stanza ends with a description of coldness without snow, colour for which is generally blue. The ribbons awarded for winning dahlias in the second stanza are blue, and the ‘blue embroidery’ (L13) of the sky is brought up again in the third stanza, this time more explicitly. Blue is the colour of sadness, and it is ever-present in the narrative. This emotion is emphasised by other motifs of futility: ‘there’s little space to swing’ (L2) in the rubber-tree forest of the first stanza; ‘lifting up and down window shutters’ (L11) is unlikely to do any good, the troupe of trees falling in the forest not being registered, and finally in the last stanza the attempt of the narrator to try to read the hand movements of the puppeteer at a fair.
Sounds and hums. Indeed, the poem is about wave-like motions, background hum. Birds are mentioned in the first stanza, and while not mentioned explicitly, a reader may extrapolate their chirping, or even humming, in the cold. The second stanza has a piano as a source of background music, although it seems that the Dahlias do not care for it. This is an inexplicable reaction at first, but becomes clear when put in the context that ‘perhaps death is a hum’ (L18), and if anything, the moment when the dahlias are awarded their blue ribbons is the time when they would prefer to ignore this background hum. Acoustic references continue in the tree metaphor, where the sound of a falling tree equates to its uprooting happening at all, and finally when the hum of death at the final stanza is described as ‘acoustic undulations’ (L18).
Like pieces of a puzzle, the disparate feelings come together in the final stanza: ‘perhaps death is a hum; acoustic undulations / heard / as we explore the festival grounds / trying to read the hand movements / of a puppeteer’ (L18-L22). Exploration of the festival grounds is a metaphor for life, and wherever we go, death is always lurking in the background. It’s the music in the background, waves of sound and matter, made visible in the moving of the god-like puppeteer’s hands. The reader can imagine this act quite vividly: a puppet may move in seemingly organized way, but attempting to figure out which way it will move based solely on the flicks of wrist and fingers of the puppeteer is a futile exercise. The fates that control us are just as indecipherable.
Aryanil Mukherjee is a bilingual poet, translator and editor who grew up in Kolkata, India. He has authored eight books of poetry and essays in two languages. Awarded the Kabita Pakkhik Samman (Poetry Fortnightly Honor) for 2007, his recent English work has appeared in The Literary Review, Open Spaces, Jacket, Helix, Drunken Boat and Big Bridge. Recent Spanish translations have appeared in El Invisible Anillo. His work has featured in many anthologies, some recentmost include the Indian Poetry issue of TLR, Indivisible – a shortly forthcoming anthology of South Asian American poetry from U. Arkansas Press & La Poesia Bengalí – a forthcoming Spanish anthology of contemporary Bengali poetry from Calambur Press, Madrid. Aryanil edits KAURAB, a Bangla parallel literary magazine published since 1970. He works as an engineering mathematician and lives in Cincinnati, USA.